Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Somaly Mam Dethroned

I was duped, as were millions of others, by Somaly Mam's tale. She was such a perfect hero--beautiful, selfless, fearless. When I painted her back in January of 2013, I was moved by the face that emerged from the watercolor. I felt intimately familiar with her, as if I had suddenly brought her to life in my own home, transporting her and her mission miles overseas. At my Spring 2014 art gallery featuring the portraits I have painted of change-maker women, it was Somaly Mam's portrait who I chose to stand by for photo ops. Her face was striking against the purple background, her story and presence radiating: I was proud.

Now I am ashamed. A few weeks ago, a close friend of mine brought up the Somaly Mam "scandal." A champion of human rights in Cambodia, Somaly Mam claimed to have escaped a life of sexual slavery. Her experience compelled her to help others who shared the same fate. She created a robust anti-trafficking organization with a sister organization in America. She raised millions of dollars, won a variety of awards and was recognized as a hero of our time by organizations such as CNN, Newsweek, Time and Fortune, to name a few. But years after she began to tell her tale, her story began to fall apart. 

Newsweek investigated her claims and discovered evidence of lies, the most prominent perhaps being the fabricated story of Long Pros. Long Pros was apparently rescued by Somaly's efforts. She repeatedly recited the hardships she endured in slavery including the gouging out of her eye by an angry pimp to public media. She became a poster child of Somaly Mam's local and international organizations. I remember her face distinctly from the Half the Sky documentary. After careful investigation, various sources discovered Long Pros' story to be a lie. Her eye was removed by a doctor because of a tumor, not by a pimp. 

Long Pross was just the start of many holes to be poked in Somaly's back story. Some girls in Somaly's Cambodian girls home have admitted to carefully rehearsing their sob stories for the press; previous employees have shared their skepticism of Somaly's intentions; and various locals who knew Somaly growing up surface doubt as to whether she was trafficked at all. Samaly Mam stands by her story, despite having stepped down from the Somaly Mam Foundation based in New York. 

An article by Marie Claire sheds light on Somaly's side of the scandal and casts doubt on the legitimacy of Newsweek's claims. 

Long Pros' family lied about Pros getting surgery because they were ashamed of her trafficking history. The press twisted my words about Somaly Mam when I spoke to them; I didn't hire a lawyer to clear my name because I am focused on caring for the girls

Lines of counter narratives fill Marie Claire's article--narratives that make me second guess my initial anger with this whole debacle. I am torn between two stories that don't line up. A main factor in my siding with Newsweek is the fact that the Somaly Mam Foundation in New York has come to the same conclusions as Newsweek after launching an independent investigation on Somaly's life. While Marie Claire's claims supporting Somaly are significant, they do not trump the case against her.

I would like to believe Somaly. I would like to believe that a person does not need to lie or exaggerate to get ahead on the international stage. I would also like to believe that a news reporter would not tear down the integrity of an international hero just for the heck of it.

Unfortunately, the cards appear to be stacked against Somaly and I am left disappointed. I now ask myself what I should do with the portrait of Somaly Mam that sits among the other portraits I have painted paying tribute to female trailblazers. Trash it? Write beneath it about the tainted hero in watercolor?

The only hope I can offer is that despite the lies, perhaps Somaly's work on the ground actually did help girls suffering in slavery. Nick Kristof believes so. My heart is torn as I am sure are those of other Somaly Mam supporters. Do some research. Prove Newsweek, the Somaly Mam Foundation and me wrong. I would love to learn that Somaly aligned with the truth and that this scandal is in fact the lie.

But until then, Somaly will not be surfacing in my collection. 


Friday, January 17, 2014

Act Now: Stop Modern Day Slavery

The amazing panel!

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr's birthday and his legacy, the King Center jump-started their new campaign #choosenonviolence by hosting a panel of professionals to discuss the issue of modern day slavery. The event was held this past Wednesday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the church where Martin Luther King Jr once stood and shook the nation with words of peace and equality. I had the privilege of attending the event and joining the discussion. The panelists included Dr. Alveda King, Susan Coopedge, Neil Irvin, Sheryl DeLuca Johnson, Stephanie Davis, Aaronde Creighton, Mary Frances and Lt. Janet Brady.

I was overjoyed to have the presence of two men on the panel as passionate about the cause as the women present. I was also overjoyed to see some men in the audience. I believe so often that the issue of human trafficking and what we sometimes call "women's issues" tend to be viewed as pertaining solely to one gender--women. However, as Hilary Clinton once said, "Let it be that women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." It is imperative that we involve men in these issues and make the conversations surrounding these issues accessible to all. As was reiterated over and over again during the panel, both girls and boys, women and men are victims of human trafficking. The majority of victims may be women and girls, but this does not discredit the amount of boys and men sold into slavery every day around the world. Additionally, the poverty, violence, and unstable homes that can perpetuate the cycle of human trafficking are not products of solely women nor problems of women alone. Building a better society begins with both women and men joining together to make our world a better place.

While I was surprised and excited to see some men present as well as have men on the panel, I was disappointed by the numbers in the audience. While the issues at stake were large, the audience was small. Mostly older women sat in the pews of the church. I may have been the youngest one there aside from the daughter of one of the panelists. I consider myself educated on the issue of human trafficking; modern day slavery is on my radar, and I understand that this issue is happening not only abroad, as portrayed in films like "Taken", but also locally. However, the sheer numbers of people in the audience this past Wednesday night made me doubt how effective we have been as a society in letting our communities know what is truly going on on our streets and in the online space. People are being sold on street corners and online daily. Is the general public not concerned? Or do they in fact not know what is going on? I lean towards the latter.

I distinctly remember explaining the Half the Sky Movement to a friend at school. When I mentioned that people in America are being sold into slavery, my friend stopped me in my tracks. She could fathom such atrocities happening in remote countries such as Thailand or India; however, she couldn't imagine slavery existing on the streets of D.C. Unfortunately, it does. At the panel Wednesday night, I was even shocked to learn that most of the human trafficking that occurs in Georgia occurs in the suburbs--65%. I typically imagine human trafficking to occur on the busy streets of D.C. or Las Vegas; clearly, even I have some learning to do.

Dr. Bernice King speaking on the issue of human trafficking in Georgia

Dr. Bernice King said herself at the event that the one thing she would change about the #choosenonviolence campaign is who they are targeting. She recognized the lack of youth present and realized the importance of engaging young people in the conversation. Panelist Sheryl DeLuca Johnson who works for Street Grace, an organization fighting to end domestic minor sex trafficking, made a profound statement when discussing why she began to work with minors in this field. Previously, Johnson had worked with women at Metro Atlanta Recovery Residences, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. She realized that while helping women, younger girls were writing the same story these older women currently were living. So she decided to work with younger girls to change their stories before they became those women.

The youth need to hear this conversation. The average age of girls entering the sex trade in Georgia is 14 years old. Young people, like myself, need to be present at events such as these, aware of what is going on, and active in changing the way our society works. While sitting in the audience, I wanted to ask how educating youth on the issue of human trafficking has possibly curbed the amount of girls and boys entering the trade. While I did not get the chance to ask the question, I almost felt the question was answered for me as Dr. Bernice King made clear the youth were not leading the King Center's campaign to end violence in Georgia. I know that organizations such as Fair Girls of D.C. and youthSpark of Georgia incorporate education into their mission, educating at-risk youth about the dangers of human trafficking. I commend their work as I believe this is a vital means of mitigating this issue. However; let's involve youth that aren't deemed "at-risk". Let's educate and empower youth to take the lead on campaigns such as #choosenonviolence. Let's have a young community activist on the panel. Let's show adults that we are ready to take the lead, and show other youth that we can make a difference and be a part of the solution.

While "taking the lead" and "making the change" can be empowering words, they can also be overwhelming. As panelist Aaronde Creighton, a member of the board of directors of Street Grace, mentioned, "Do one thing." There are a multitude of problems in our society. It can be overwhelming wondering where to begin, how to help, which issue to address. Creighton emphasized taking on one thing and exemplified how "one thing" can make a difference by referring back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. African Americans challenged the injustice of segregation in America in the 1950's by doing "one thing"--not riding the buses. Thirteen months after committing to this "one thing", the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional. Like African Americans during the civil rights movement, today we too can challenge the injustices in our society, but we must do something!

Me and Dr. Bernice King--What an honor!

We must not remain silent because our voices are the only way we can let it be known that modern day slavery and other problems that plague our world matter. As panelists Stephanie Davis, Executive Director at Georgia Women For a Change Inc., and Susan Coppedge, Assistant U.S. State Attorney, emphasized repeatedly, "We all have a voice. We just need to use it." Use your voice! Write to your senator; lobby with the public; do something to let your voice be heard. As Martin Luther King, Jr stated, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Modern day slavery matters and we can no longer stay silent. Register today for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Lobby Day this February 13th if you live in Georgia and tell your legislators that this issue matters to you. Join the One Billion Rising Campaign. Volunteer in your local community. Sign the petition to get the International Violence Against Women Act passed. These are all small actions you can take that truly make a difference.

I challenge you to continue this conversation, learn more, and involve all people in our society to bring about change. We can do this if we work together; we can do this if we all let our voices be heard.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Thank You to the Men

Tonight I participated in a pilot program of Jewish Women International's (JWI) Safe Smart Dating program that will soon be brought to Sigma Delta Tau sorority and Zeta Beta Tau fraternity on campuses nationwide. The program approaches the issues of dating abuse and sexual assault by teaching about different types of abuse, the signs of abuse and how we can help reduce the prevalence of sexual assault and dating abuse in our communities.

While the information presented was striking, much of it I have heard before in other sexual assault awareness trainings. What struck me most about the evening was the prevalence of men in the room. Of 8 university students piloting the program, half the students were men. Considering global women's issues is the focus of this blog, I rarely take the time to mention the men who are helping to mitigate issues women face in their communities. This is not to say that men do not experience dating abuse or sexual assault; however, according to national surveys presented in JWI's program, women tend to make up more victims of sexual assault and dating abuse than men.

The motivation of these men to pilot a dating abuse program impressed me, but the actions they have already taken to help end sexual violence impressed me even more. Three out of four of the boys present were members of GW Men of Strength, a George Washington University student organization focused on mobilizing university men to combat cultures of violence on campus, with an emphasis on violence against women.

Piloting the Safe Smart Dating program alongside men who are as invested in combatting violence against women as I am was a unique and rewarding experience. While I so often talk to my male friends on campus about global women's issues, they often see it as just that--a woman's issue. The nature of framing problems such as gender-based violence, human trafficking, maternal mortality, etc. as global women's issues is that men hear "women" and assume these issues do not pertain to them.

However, as Hillary Clinton once said, "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." Similarly global women's issues are not just women's issues but issues of humanity; and in regards to tonight's program, violence against women is a problem of humanity as well.

Thank you to the men who came out tonight to JWI's Safe Smart Dating Program. I hope as I continue to fight for women's rights that I meet more men like you who realize women's issues are human issues, and who are speaking out against injustice to bring about change.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Woman of the Week: Linor Abargil

Linor Abargil

A few months ago, I returned from studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. While away, I was able to complete three portraits. Three portraits, in four-and-a-half months, and in a new environment was more than I had hoped for. I had been nervous that I would lose motivation to paint and keep up with my blog while abroad. However, it seemed the opposite occured.

The real challenge, I discovered, was coming home. After about a week with my family, I went straight to work at my internship in D.C. Although I was working for an organization that helped women worldwide lead change in their communities, I did little blogging, and even less painting. I was meeting and learning about so many amazing women throughout the day, yet was producing nothing. I made lists of women I wanted to paint and post about, but actually creating content felt like pulling teeth.

I thought I had lost my spark; I honestly didn't know if I would ever produce another painting; and then I felt guilty and responsible to all those who looked to me as an example of someone striving to make a difference.

In the beginning of summer, I had the chance to meet former Miss World Linor Abargil as she toured cross country to promote her new film "Brave Miss World". Linor, crowned Miss Israel in 1998, was raped in Italy by an Israeli travel agent just two months before being crowned Miss World. After returning to Israel, Linor pressed charges against her rapist and became a symbol of hope for other victims of domestic violence and abuse. By encouraging other victims to speak out, Linor challenged the culture of silence that allows injustices against women to persist.

Linor was at the top of my list of women to paint. I was eager to share her story and the trailer for her film that moved me deeply. When I began to form her right eye, I thought I saw her peeking through the blank watercolor paper. But then I began the nose, and I lost her. She slipped through the strokes and I couldn't find Linor no matter how many layers of paint I added to bring her back. Linor's portrait was the longest one I took to produce. And I grew anxious when I thought I might have to give up.

However, about a month after beginning the painting, I can finally and happily say Linor is complete. Linor's strong will and passion for change helped me remain focused on my ultimate goal: to share Linor's story and pay tribute to her through my artwork. I am so grateful to Linor for helping me reclaim my spark and for her unwavering dedication to women and girls around the world.

Below is the trailer for "Brave Miss World":

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Recap: Malala Day

While I'm in the habit of posting videos, I feel compelled to share with you Malala Yousafzai's recent address to the UN on Malala Day. I have been meaning to write about Malala Day since before Malala Day even occurred on July 12, 2013. I have been struggling with the exact words I want to say to express my appreciation and gratitude for such a courageous young woman who has inspired the world to act for girls' access to education worldwide.

Malala was the first woman I painted and her story jumpstarted my blog. Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani teenage girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for challenging their doctrine and advocating for girls' education. She miraculously survived the murder attempt against her and has made a full recovery. On July 12, 2013, Malala turned 16 and on her birthday she addressed the UN and viewers worldwide of the struggle for girls' empowerment and education around the world.

On July 12, my fellow interns and I gathered around a computer in our office to view the live online streaming of Malala's speech at the UN. Malala spoke eloquently, confidently, and with a sense of maturity that deceived her 16-year-old body. Her words were profound and her fight just. Despite her voice being projected through a computer speaker, I felt her presence in the room. "Malala Day is not my day: today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights," she announced. These were words of Malala's first public speech calling upon the world to act and they have yet to lose their fervor. 

Highlight: "Honor Diaries" Documentary

Thank you Uncle Steve for forwarding this documentary trailer my way.

The film "Honor Diaries" features 9 women from societies with large Muslim populations in their fight to secure their human rights as women. The film approaches issues such as forced marriage, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, the right to education and the right to move freely from place to place. "Honor Diaries" is amplifying the voices of women around the world that have gone unheard and bringing attention to issues that plague over half of the world's population.

I can't wait to see this film in full.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Power of Human Agency

I have to admit that I haven't always been an active American citizen. In fact, I haven't always been an active world citizen. Before reading Half the Sky, I had little concept of what was going on in the world, and if I did, I felt that I had too little knowledge to contribute to any conversation meaningfully. So in turn, I remained silent, and I put all my trust in world leaders that they would lead my life accordingly.

I distinctly remember the time I stood in the back of a small crowd of university students fighting for lower tuition in front of our campus library. I stumbled upon the procession and listened to a student speak about the calamity of high tuition. I lingered in the back watching the scene. Coming from a privileged family, I never worried about my tuition. I didn't track how money for books or classes were increasing each year because I deferred that responsibility to my parents who were always there with financial support. I was uninformed and felt like a phony in the gathering of people. The crowd began to chant a demand for lower tuition, and I slowly shrunk away and returned home, too embarrassed to join in.

I never followed up with the movement for lower tuition on my campus, mostly because I didn't imagine anything would come from it.

Until I had spent a good four-and-a-half months in South Africa did I come to realize civil society's place in the world. I learned more about the drive for human agency and the ability of a unified movement to bring about change.

South Africa spent decades under an apartheid regime, which divided the country based on race. The white minority ruled over Coloureds, Africans, and Indians. People of "inferior" races were forcibly removed from their homes, forced to carry passes around detailing their identity; they were pushed to the outskirts of society and denied their basic human rights. Nelson Mandela became an international hero as he brought worldwide attention to the injustices of the apartheid regime and organized a non-violent movement for justice among Africans, Indians and Coloureds. He became the first black president of the country and stepped down after one term to give others the chance to lead and follow in his footsteps.

Unfortunately, South Africa's government today, in certain parts of the country, remains corrupt, and the nation is left with many problems. The government-promised houses for shack dwellers in townships have taken years to manifest. One girl I met seemed hopeful despite the 16-year-period her family has been waiting for a house. In other parts of the country, the environment has felt the brunt of mining development in regions rich with indigenous vegetation and wildlife. However, South Africans understand the importance of human agency, considering it was only a few decades ago when community action successfully ousted the oppressive apartheid regime. South Africans strike for higher wages, organize to protect the environment and challenge legislation to bring about positive change.

A South African friend of mine's little sister was singing the South African National Anthem at home when she got to the line "let us live and strive for freedom". In her ten-year-old naivety, Michal sang out "let us live and STRIKE for freedom". We all laughed, though her South African parents laughed the most because they knew it was true. Striking, as a tool for justice, was and remains a part of South African culture. My last three weeks of volunteering in Cape Town were cancelled due to bus strikes. Although, I was upset to no longer be volunteering in the townships, bus drivers' wages increased, and I saw firsthand the power of collective human agency.

Upon returning home to America, I realized how naive I was to be absent from the decision-making processes in my home country. I realized how irresponsible it is to believe my country would always act in my best interest and that of humanity's. I began to see the danger of ignorance and how by remaining silent, I could potentially be supporting an oppressive regime.

As I read more and learn more, I have discovered how unified action to fight for civil rights, women rights, LGBT rights, and even action to reduce school tuition or increase wages can change our world. Without human agency, segregation could still exist, people with disabilities could still be ostracized, women could still be excluded from politics (not to say these issues have been perfectly fixed either).

Recently, a hospital in Zimbabwe decided to charge women five dollars for every time they screamed during labor. Why? Because their scream signaled a "false alarm". This decision enraged me, disgusted me, but I left it for what it was. Thankfully, others didn't. Transparency International, a non-profit fighting against corruption in governments around the world, talked with Zimbabwe's National Health Industry. About a week after I heard about the five dollar charge, I learned of its removal from hospital policy. This unfair charge seemed easily overturned and I realized I could potentially have done exactly what Transparency International had succeeded to do. This small success made towards justice strengthens my conviction that I have the ability to provoke change as well.

From protests on campus to strikes in South Africa to international intervention in Zimbabwe, I have seen how speaking up and standing up can make an impact. I see that we all have power as human beings to bring about change. Yet, we forfeit that power when we forfeit our belief that, as an individual, we matter. It is imperative we realize our worth; there is no time for so much human potential to go untapped.